Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

hero Three-Billboards-rev Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  (2017)    Fox Searchlight/Comedy-Drama    RT: 115 minutes    Rated R (violence, language throughout, some sexual references)    Director: Martin McDonagh    Screenplay: Martin McDonagh    Music: Carter Burwell    Cinematography: Ben Davis    Release date: November 22, 2017 (US)    Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Kathryn Newton, Kerry Condon, Amanda Warren, Zeljko Ivanek, Sandy Martin, Nick Searcy, Christopher Berry, Brendan Sexton III.  

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 It’s official! Martin McDonagh is no longer a filmmaker to watch; he has arrived with a vengeance. His latest film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not only one of the best films of the year; it’s one of the best of the decade. It’s hard to believe it’s only his third film. The writer-director made a startling debut with 2008’s brilliant In Bruges. He stumbled a bit with the good but uneven Seven Psychopaths. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes him a force to be reckoned with. It’s not at all what the trailer leads you to expect and in this case, it’s a good thing.

 three bilboardsThe trailer makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri look like one of those comedies where a lone person wages a crusade against an unfair system in order to embarrass them into righting some wrong. That’s what it’s about, on the surface anyway. Many filmmakers would be content to proceed in this direction and never stray from the path. Not McDonagh, he’s a risk taker. He goes to some pretty dark places in this story of a grieving mother and her mission to get justice for the rape and murder of her teenage daughter.

 Technically, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a dark comedy which is fitting given the subject matter, some of the events that occur and some of the characters that populate the fictional Southern town of Ebbing, MO. Besides the angry, vindictive mom played flawlessly by Frances McDormand (Fargo), there’s also a racist cop, an abusive ex-husband and a suspected rapist-killer. Not many directors are capable of mining such material. Only the most skilled can do it as effectively as McDonagh does here.

 “Raped While Dying”, “Still No Arrests” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

These are the words that appear on the three billboards located on a lonely, desolate road just outside town that nobody uses anymore. They were put there by Mildred Hayes (McDormand) who’s enraged that the local police haven’t made any progress in her daughter’s seven-month-old case. They catch the attention of Chief Willoughby (Harrelson, LBJ), a profane but basically decent man understandably upset about being called-out in public. He’d like to solve the case but without a DNA match to anybody on the criminal database, it’s gone cold. The billboards make almost everybody in town angry, especially Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell, Seven Psychopaths), a violent racist with a reputation for abusing/assaulting black people. Her abusive ex-husband Charlie (Hawkes, Winter’s Bone), who now lives with his dim 19-year-old girlfriend (Weaving, The Babysitter), demands that she take them down. Nearly everybody in Ebbing turns against Mildred but she refuses to back down. Her act of civil disobediences leads to a series of events that range from comic to tragic to outright horrific.

 What’s interesting about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is that it’s not terribly concerned with the details of the crime or the investigation. It’s neither a procedural nor a mystery. It’s more about how it affects the souls of those most closely involved. It also looks at the ripple effect of Mildred’s controversial billboards that even attract the attention of the media. Cause and effect take precedence over crime and resolution. One action leads to something else and so on down the line. The end result is redemption for characters with huge flaws. McDonagh also successfully debunks the notion that first impressions are always the most accurate. Over the film’s running time, our perceptions of certain characters change. We not only understand why they are like they are, we also understand what makes them change.

 McDormand turns in her best performance since her Oscar-winning turn as pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo. Much like the 1996 movie, she owns Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. She says more with a single withering stare than any monologue. You can sense the pain beneath all her rage. Guilt also factors into her psychological profile. Her dialogue is, at once, wickedly funny and venomously cruel. Her daughter’s death has apparently disabled her filter. The scene where she tears down the local priest who comes to her house offering counsel is one for the books. Harrelson is also great as Willoughby, a dedicated lawman and devoted family man going through some personal stuff. He infuses his character with his own natural likability. Rockwell is this movie’s other major player. Known for playing nice guys, he steps way out of character to play a vile, violent racist cop who breaks as many laws as he claims to uphold. He looks like somebody who drinks himself to sleep in front of the TV every night. He lives with his mother (Martin, Napoleon Dynamite), a chain-smoking bully whose taunts and insults continue to damage his psyche. He has the biggest character arc in the film; his transformation is never less than convincing.

 Other memorable characters include James (Dinklage, Elf), the town midget who wants to date Mildred; Red (Jones, Get Out), the fellow facing backlash for renting the billboards to Mildred and Anne (Cornish, Seven Psychopaths), Willoughby’s loving and patient wife. McDonagh successfully traverses across different tonal territories. He leaps and zig-zags from savage comedy to shocking violence to scenes of surprising warmth like the one in which Mildred (briefly) finds serenity upon encountering a deer in a meadow. For me, the most shocking scene is when a character throws somebody from a second-floor window and continues to assault him on the street. In less capable hands, these shifts in mood would prove insurmountable. McDonagh pulls it off. Again, I can’t believe Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is only his third film.

 With a terrific score from Coen Brothers regular Carter Burwell and amazing cinematography from Ben Davis, this is one outstanding film. It’s not what you expect and it’s never what you think. It’s as far from conventional as you can get. Even the ending is spot-on. Whereas others would go for a more conclusive denouement, McDonagh’s ending is consistent with the rest of the movie. It’s the ending that makes the most sense. You don’t see that too often these days. Audiences want finality and a big shoot-out. They expect it. I admire filmmakers like McDonagh who go against the grain and deliver something different. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri definitely marches to its own drummer. I am loving the beat and everything else.

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